I have been looking forward to reading Flush for months, and I really wasn’t disappointed. Written in the period after Virginia Woolf had completed writing The Waves; which she had found so draining Flush, is a complete joy. Flush – for those who don’t know – is a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog, a cocker spaniel that was her constant companion, both before and after her marriage to Robert Browning. The book is a combination of fiction and non-fiction, through which we meet the two nineteenth century poets, revealing something of the early years of their marriage.
Although it appears so much lighter in tone than many of her other works, Flush does in fact consider social inequalities and the way that society treated and classified its women. Virginia Woolf employs her famous stream of consciousness style to explore women writers, through the point of view of a small, spoiled brown dog. Apparently Woolf drew her inspiration from the two poems that Elizabeth Barrett Browning published about her dog. What is amazingly well done, is how Woolf manages to convey a depth of feeling and understanding between Flush and his mistress – which anyone who has had any kind of relationship with a dog – maybe with any animal will find utterly charming. There has been a suggestion that Virginia Woolf uses this animal perspective, to explore the similarities between herself and Elizabeth Barrett. This is something Sally Beauman, in her preface to this Persephone edition, certainly asks the reader to consider as being the subtext to this book.
Flush was given to the invalid Elizabeth Barrett by Mary Russell Mitford, another spinster writer. At this period Elizabeth Barret was very much the invalid, subject to her father’s control, and Flush curls himself up at the feet of his new mistress and in doing so becomes as confined to the house as she already is.
“Oh Flush!” said Miss Barrett. For the first time she looked him in the face. For the first time Flush looked at the lady lying on the sofa.
Each was surprised. Heavy curls hung down on either side of Miss Barrett’s face; large bright eyes shone out; a large mouth smiled. Heavy ears hung down on each side of Miss Flush’s face; his eyes, too, were large and bright: his mouth was wide. There was a likeness between them. As they gazed at each other each felt: Here I am—and then each felt: But how different! Hers was the pale worn face of an invalid, cut off from air, light, freedom. His was the warm ruddy face of a young animal; instinct with health and energy. Broken asunder, yet made in the same mould, could it be that each completed what was dormant in the other? She might have been—all that; and he—But no. Between them lay the widest gulf that can separate one being from another. She spoke. He was dumb. She was woman; he was dog. Thus closely united, thus immensely divided, they gazed at each other. Then with one bound Flush sprang to the sofa and laid himself to where he was to lie ever after—on the rug at Miss Barrett’s feet.”
In puppyhood in the Mitford home, Flush had had fields and space to run in, but in Wimpole Street at the feet of Elizabeth Barrett he becomes a pampered little pooch, who finishes the rich foods that Miss Barrett can’t manage. Flush’s comfortable incarceration in Wimpole Street mirror Elizabeth Barrett’s own. Enter Robert Browning, initially in frequent letters arriving at Wimpole Street. Flush can sense as each letter arrives the change that is coming to the house, and that of his mistress’s demeanour. As Robert Browning becomes a more fixed presence. Visiting in secret more and more often, the relationship between Flush and his adored Miss Barrett begins to change. Flush resents the figure of Robert Browning so much he resorts to showing his teeth.
“Sleep became impossible while that man was there. Flush lay with his eyes wide open, listening. Though he could make no sense of the little worlds that hurled over his head from two-thirty to four-thirty sometimes three times a week, he could detect with terrible accuracy that the tone of the words was changing. Miss Barrett’s voice had been forced and unnaturally lively at first. Now it had gained a warmth and an ease that he had never heard in it before. And every time the man came, some new sound came into their voices –made grotesque chattering; now they skimmed over him like birds flying widely; now they cooed and clucked, as if they were two birds settled in a nest; and then Miss Barrett’s voice rising again, went soaring and circling in the air; and then Mr Browning’s voice barked out its sharp, harsh clapper of laughter; and then there was only a murmur, a quiet humming sound as the voices joined together.”
As the relationship with Robert Browning develops Elizabeth Barrett finds strength she didn’t have before, her health improves, and on an excursion to a nearby shop, she loses sight of Flush for a second. Flush is kidnapped, held for ransom by a criminal gang. Holding the spoilt, pets of fine ladies was a lucrative, and disgusting enterprise for these gangs at this time, and none of the men in Elizabeth Barret’s life to whom she appealed for help, thought the ransom should be paid. In the placing of the streets where these gangs operate so close to Wimpole Street, Woolf contrasts two very different sections of nineteenth century London. This interest in various sections of society is certainly something we have seen before. Bravely, and with steely determination Elizabeth Barrett takes matters into her own hands to secure Flush’s freedom. Again we have mirroring, in Flush’s freedom and Elizabeth Barrett’s. Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning elope, and upon their marriage travel to Italy – where they will live in exile as it were, following Elizabeth’s dis-inheritance by her furious father. Here – but for a short trip back to London a few years later, Flush lives for the rest of his life, again tasting something of the freedom he had known as a young pup on the streets of Italy.
It is probably a given that Flush is beautifully written, it is lighter in tone, more accessible than some Woolf works no doubt, but there is surprising depth of emotion too. Flush is an absolute joy of a book, I wanted it to be far longer than it was. The Brownings are a fascinating couple, and somehow viewed through the eyes of this darling little dog they become more real, more human, than biographies often are able to make their subjects.